Democracy in America made a surprising–and welcome–comeback this spring. Many of us assumed the front-loaded primary season meant the contest would be less democratic than ever, but instead Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were forced to fight the longest and most nationally inclusive race for a presidential nomination in history. About 3.5 million new voters registered and cast ballots, boosting participation among young people and people of color to new highs. More people voted in the Democratic primaries in North Carolina and Indiana than turned out for John Kerry in those states during the 2004 presidential race. The previously untapped potential of our democracy was on full display.
No candidate has spoken to this potential more directly than Obama. Millions of Americans embraced the presumptive Democratic nominee’s “firm conviction…that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.”
Obama’s audacious hope is intoxicating, but that hope must be sustained by a vision of what a more perfect union would look like.
Essential to realizing that vision in the twenty-first century is a transformation that doesn’t rank high in any poll or list of probable reforms.
If we are to realize the potential the primary season has revealed and begin moving toward that more perfect union, if we are to finally transcend our downsized politics of excluded alternatives, progressives will have to drive a bold agenda to invigorate democracy at home and capture greater power for the people. There may never be a better time than the next few years.
Some in Washington have touted the export of democracy abroad (often with disastrous results) while they neglect our own. The terrible irony is that they would not grant unconditional funding to a country whose democratic design looks like ours. The machinery of American democracy is broken: mistakes, chicaneries, snafus and disasters debilitate almost every race everywhere, every two years, with the result that an increasing number of Americans report feeling alienated by the voting process.
There are clear signs of the decline of our democracy: registration and voter turnout lag far behind other democracies; ever larger numbers of citizens are disenfranchised; the cost of running for office is spiraling out of control, excluding citizens of average means from participating in government; and our media, the forum for the healthy debate so essential to any democracy, are increasingly incapable of acting in the public interest.
This decline predates the 2000 presidential contest. Some of its roots are found in the invidious history of racial discrimination of which Senator Obama (all too briefly) reminded us. That unresolved election focused attention on our increasingly dysfunctional electoral system and the larger problems of our democracy. The past seven years of extremist Republican rule have stymied every effort to address the flaws that the 2000 election revealed.
Pollsters tell us that “process reforms” don’t galvanize voters. Candidates slight them. Pundits often scorn them, assuming that money will always dominate and that corruption is simply a fact of nature. But the primary season just past–which saw Americans of every background and political persuasion becoming experts on superdelegates and tuning in to a live broadcast of the Democratic Party’s rules and bylaws committee meeting–suggests that Americans do care about how our elections are run, and that they want them to be fair and functional. Obama–and, for that matter, Republican John McCain, who made his reputation as an election reformer–should, in this election year, address the concerns of millions of Americans about a broken system. And in 2009 progressives should recognize that it is vital to break from cynicism and advance a vision of government that is, in fact, of the people, by the people and for the people. It’s time for Just Democracy.
American representative democracy is in trouble. New flash points arise daily; others have been with us for years:
The Supreme Court recently upheld Indiana’s harsh new law requiring voters to present a photo ID or be denied their right to vote, despite its potential to disenfranchise many people. That was a green light for building new barriers to voting.
The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law recently declared Florida to be “the most hostile state in the nation to new voters–particularly in traditionally underserved communities that might otherwise see record-breaking participation in this presidential election year.” The number of registered voters in Florida has actually dropped seven percentage points since 2004, to only 65 percent of those eligible.
Roughly one-third of all eligible Americans, 64 million people, are not registered to vote. This percentage is even higher for African-Americans (30 percent) and Hispanics (40 percent). Shockingly, for those between the ages of 18 and 24, it climbs to 50 percent. Registration rates are directly correlated with income: about 80 percent of those who make $75,000 or more a year are registered to vote, while only about 55 percent of those who make between $15,000 and $24,999 are registered. It’s unacceptable for this country’s registration rate to be so low.
The United States is the only democracy in the world that strips the right to vote from citizens who have done time in prison. Fourteen states permanently disenfranchise some citizens; in 2004, these laws stripped 5.3 million Americans with felony convictions–disproportionately but by no means solely African-American and Latino–of the right to vote, even after they had paid their debt to society.
Many Americans who are registered to vote don’t make it to the polls. With only a single day on which to cast their ballot, working people often find themselves without the time to participate in the most basic ritual of our democracy.
Turnout is further suppressed by the increasing obstacles voters face when they try to cast their ballots: whether it’s simply the failure to provide enough machines for voting to proceed quickly and efficiently, false notices instructing people to vote on the wrong day or at the wrong place, or bogus robo-calls to voters spreading disinformation and challenges at the polls–primarily targeting African-Americans–we confront a disturbing number of efforts to corrupt our democratic process.
The laws allowing voter challenges are the product of historic efforts to disenfranchise African-Americans. In Ohio the State Assembly first allowed challenges at polling places in 1831; by 1859 possessing a “visible admixture of African blood” was enough to endanger someone’s right to vote. Florida allowed challenges for the first time just a year after federal law overruled a state law denying African-American men the right to vote. If these statutes and others like them have been purged of their overt racist bias, they still allow voters of any color to be excluded from the democratic process on the slimmest of pretexts.
Despite much of the mainstream media’s eagerness to declare our elections since 2000 a success, too many of the problems that emerged during the 2000 debacle are still with us. In Columbus, Ohio, in 2004 African-American voters waited in line for hours before they could cast their ballots, while voters in white areas voted quickly and easily. In 2006 voters in one predominantly minority jurisdiction in Tennessee waited in line for as long as five and a half hours because of an insufficient number of voting machines. Similar reports were heard from states as diverse as Maryland, Colorado, Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Utah and Massachusetts.
Even when voters are able to cast ballots, they do so without the confidence that their votes will be counted or, ultimately, count. Legitimate fears of easily hacked voting machines that leave no paper trail are exacerbated by a Supreme Court that ordered votes not to be counted in 2000.
That there have been so few serious efforts at the federal level to reform the Electoral College, which played a determining role in the 2000 selection of George W. Bush–who had fewer popular votes than Al Gore–is a disturbing sign that our democracy is unable to respond to the most basic consensus. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore decision, which decided the election by awarding Florida’s electoral votes to Bush, a Gallup poll summed up fifty years’ worth of polling with the judgment that “a majority of Americans have continually expressed support for the notion of an official amendment of the U.S. Constitution that would allow for direct election of the president.”
How we wound up with such a convoluted electoral process is a complicated story, but one of the key elements was the desire of the slaveholding states to preserve the influence they had gained through the infamous three-fifths compromise, in which slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of apportioning Representatives to the House. The Electoral College allowed those states to exert that same influence over the selection of the President.
Slavery is long gone, but time has done little to rid the Electoral College of its biases. Whether you live in the District of Columbia (whose citizens are denied voting rights in Congress) or New York City, Los Angeles or Chicago, the Electoral College blatantly privileges the votes of some citizens over others.
How much your vote counts should never depend on where you live. In a country where many of us live in “safe states”–states that aren’t contested by the major-party candidates so voting can feel pointless–it is not surprising that in a worldwide survey of voter turnout for national elections since 1945, the United States placed 139th.
As Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center, observes in his new book, A Return to Common Sense: Seven Bold Ways to Revitalize Democracy, “In the United States, a typical off-year election sees turnout at 47 percent. Even in a presidential race, in recent years roughly four out of ten voting-age citizens haven’t made it to the polls.” Given the partisan divide among the voters who ultimately do make it to the polls, the President is often the choice of no more than a third of eligible American voters. This is not majority rule; it is plurality rule.
In a real democracy voters have a real choice. Under the Constitution, Congress was designed to reflect the diversity of the public, but now the power of incumbency limits the choices available to the people. In the 2004 House elections, only seven of the 399 incumbents running lost their seats. Subtract the four incumbent Texas Democrats whose districts were infamously dismantled by Texas Republican Tom DeLay, and only three incumbents lost–a North Korean-style 99 percent re-election rate. Four of the five national elections between 1996 and 2006 saw more than 98 percent of incumbents hang onto their seats. Even the “blue wave” of 2006 saw just twenty-nine seats in the House change hands. The power of incumbency has calcified our government into a duopoly.
Incumbents derive much of their staying power from the redistricting process, which has increasingly become a bipartisan farce in which the parties collaborate to draw district lines that will preserve their power (or, as DeLay demonstrated, gut the other guy).
Meanwhile, the citadels of incumbency are defended by arsenals of campaign cash. Even in a change election like 2006, the Center for Responsive Politics declared, “money was a clear winner.” In 407 of 435 contests for the House, and twenty-four of thirty-three Senate contests, the winner simply outspent the loser. Given the recognition that incumbents already enjoy, they hold a massive advantage over challengers in fundraising; in the past three election cycles Congressional incumbents have raised hundreds of millions more than their opponents. At its source, the money flooding into our campaigns reflects unchecked and overwhelming corporate power; a recent study by the Campaign Finance Institute suggests that “bundlers,” who will probably provide more than half the 2008 presidential candidates’ staggering campaign contributions, represent only three industries: finance, law and real estate.
For too long, our politicians have been more focused on mobilizing money than the masses. Last November one analyst projected that the 2008 campaign would burn through $5 billion; we are already approaching the $2.5 billion mark.
At the same time, by creating an Internet-based infrastructure that has the potential to bypass the big-money establishment, Obama’s campaign has revolutionized the way money is raised for elections. Its extraordinary ability to tap small donors, amassing more than 1.5 million individual donors, 90 percent of whom have given $100 or less, promises to upend old, corrupt ways and make him (and other candidates) less mortgaged to wealthy special interests (even so, 55 percent Obama raised comes from large donors). And commendably, the campaign has cut off lobbyist donations to the Democratic National Committee and discouraged donors from helping “527” shadow operations, named after a provision in the tax code that allows groups to bypass restrictions on spending that is coordinated with parties or candidates. Still, Obama’s decision in June to opt out of the public financing system for the general election is likely to boost the role of big special-interest contributions in the campaign.
Despite Obama’s challenge to the old order, the system remains entrenched in other ways. The cost of television advertising is one of the most powerful engines of the money chase. Between 2002 and 2006 the already vast sums thrown at television advertising during elections nearly doubled, from $995.5 million to $1.7 billion. Broadcasters took that to the bank: spending on political ads accounted for half their revenue growth in 2001-02 and a jaw-dropping 80 percent of that growth in 2003-04. Not too long ago broadcasters were expected to operate as a public trust; they had a civic duty to promote public debate. Now elections seem to present little more than an opportunity for the networks to cash in on the crisis of our democracy.
The steadiest opposition to reforming a broken campaign finance system comes from big media companies, particularly those that own television stations, which now derive more than 12 percent of their income in election years from political advertising. As increasingly consolidated media dumb down political coverage–and, in the case of local elections, simply eliminate it–they enable a system in which information about candidates and campaigns comes only in the form of paid propaganda.
This is not the first time it’s been clear that our electoral process demands renewal.
The Nation published clarion calls for change in 2001 and 2004. Now comes a confluence of events that offers an immense opportunity for reform. There’s a chance that Obama will become President in 2009, and as a constitutional lawyer with a long record of teaching and action on electoral reform and voting rights, he may well be the best prepared President since the founders to take on the electoral process. And he could have a Congress in 2009 that is particularly well suited to act in alliance with a progressive administration.
Just a century ago progressive forces brought about a flurry of constitutional amendments, including women’s suffrage and direct election of senators. We have a similar opportunity to pass the reforms that will build a more just democracy. A prodemocracy movement already has the grassroots and netroots in place, as well as the principles and concrete proposals. It will take political will, savvy strategy and hard-nosed organizing. That organizing should be integrated into the 2008 campaign, and it should continue after this year’s voting is done.
The first challenge such a prodemocracy movement faces is crafting an agenda for people to rally behind, one to which they can hold their representatives accountable and one that captures the popular imagination. All too often democracy reformers find themselves fighting separate battles–over voting, campaign finance and media, to name a few–that are really part of a single war. When these issues are isolated from one another, arguments over policy quickly turn them into an insiders’ fight–a fight that reformers have a tough time winning. Instead of repeatedly waging the same battles on ever narrower ground and debating the minutiae of policy, reformers must mobilize a popular movement that sees the links between these issues.
By developing a holistic democracy agenda, the larger public-interest and progressive community can unify and amplify particular issues–healthcare, the environment, an end to reckless wars and economic injustice. Of course, we all know how hard it is to break out of our silos. But if we are going to be stronger than the sum of our parts, it’s crucial that we recognize our common stake in revitalizing our democratic process. That will free all of us to take on and defeat the powerful interests that dominate our broken democracy.
We need leaders like elder statesmen Bill Moyers and Al Gore as well as younger activists like Van Jones, Majora Carter and Stephanie Moore, who have emerged from a generation committed to a principled and participatory politics. We also need tough-minded commitment by activists on the ground and on the web to drive this agenda into the debate and out to the people, and the willingness to challenge the progressive organizations we’ve supported for years, our most trusted champions, to devote resources and energy to this cause and then use their power to hold politicians accountable.
All these measures are critical to changing our political landscape. And they are more possible in an era when tools like the Internet can promote change and connections among reformers. For a start, new online-offline combinations, using social networking, can create communities that would have been impossible to tap just a few years ago. Internet dynamo Lawrence Lessig’s new group Change Congress (change-congress.org) has the potential to organize in new and pathbreaking ways. Linked to the online-offline strategy of building new communities and tapping into existing ones, building Just Democracy should be an integral part of the work done by a broad range of groups, from the NAACP to the League of Conservation Voters to the AFL-CIO to the League of Young Voters to Media Matters. Candidates who block reform should be challenged. We need an idealistic movement and a savvy operation with a long-term strategy.
What would a core agenda be? How about Just Democracy–a program to ensure that every voter can vote, that every vote gets counted, that money talks no louder than the many and that every challenger gets to make his or her case? Media reform is a piece of the puzzle, of course, as Robert McChesney and John Nichols have outlined in our pages (see “Who’ll Unplug Big Media? Stay Tuned,” June 16). So too is party reform: how can a party that calls itself “Democratic” make unelected superdelegates defining players in its nominating process? There is no need to separate those necessary reforms, but my focus here is on the most important elements of a program to revitalize our electoral process.
Many of them are embodied in legislative proposals that have already been introduced in Congress. The long work of perfecting our democracy begins here.
Count Every Vote
The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was intended to assuage Americans’ fears that their votes might not be counted. Passed in 2002, it ranks somewhere between a disappointment and a fiasco. HAVA was a step in the right direction of establishing national standards–from voting machines to provisional ballots to paper trails to poll-worker training and voter protection–but it was not empowered to enforce crucial reforms, and it lacked a federal commitment to help states pay for elections.
There have been many legislative attempts to address the shortcomings of HAVA–including Senator Clinton and Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones’s Count Every Vote Act. So far, however, there has been no real movement on the issue. A new Congress, working with a committed President and an energized popular movement, could push through this legislation and, with it, genuine election reform.
Fix Black-Box Voting
Understandably, many prodemocracy advocates who make up the self-described Election Integrity Movement have focused their attention on the unreliability of voting machines manufactured by Diebold, Sequoia, ES&S and other corporations. HAVA supported states in updating voting machines (without specifying the type of machine) and provided funding to reach that goal. But in a glaring omission, it was left to the states to mandate a paper trail confirming for voters that their ballots had been cast as intended.
In December Ohio’s new Secretary of State, Jennifer Brunner, issued a report declaring that “critical security failures” “could impact the integrity of elections in the Buckeye State.” And she made some good recommendations for how to proceed. Most important, Brunner–as California Secretary of State Debra Bowen and Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie have already done–supports switching from touch-screens to optical-scan machines, which read ballots voters mark by hand like a standardized test. Optical scans are far more trustworthy and cost-effective than touch-screens–and they provide a record of each vote. A significant number of states still use touch-screen voting machines that do not produce paper trails–indispensable records that can be audited to double-check the results recorded by the computers. These systems are simply too unreliable to trust, given what we know about electronic voting. It’s long past time for states and the federal government to standardize one publicly reviewed open-source hardware and software design for all voting machines and to end the grip of the corporate voting machine cartel on our elections.
We need a secure paper trail on all votes cast. As Representative Rush Holt points out, election results for six states and those for counties in another fourteen states could not be audited if the election were held today. His Emergency Assistance for Secure Elections Act (HR 5036) deserves support. It is an optional program that would allow states or jurisdictions to be reimbursed for the expense of providing paper ballots and/or conducting audits of election results. Despite initial bipartisan support for the bill, some of the same Republican Representatives who voted to release it from committee turned around and voted against the bill when it reached the House floor, in a gross display of the obstructionism with which the GOP has met nearly every effort at reform.
Holt has also proposed the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act (HR 811, with 216 spon-sors–nearly half the House, including at least twenty Republicans), which would require all voting systems to provide a voter-verified paper trail to serve as the official ballot for recounts and audits, a valuable short-term measure worthy of support. The ultimate solution to the problem of electronic voting is a national law requiring voter-verified paper records, which should be the primary source for tabulating votes, backed up by mandatory recounts. This is Just Democracy.
Every bit as important as our unreliable voting systems is the relatively low-tech measure of ensuring that every polling place has an adequate number of machines and poll workers. That anyone should have to wait in line for five and a half hours is a disgrace. States should establish formulas for voting machine and poll worker allocation that take into account a variety of demographic and voting factors, not just the number of registered voters at some arbitrary cut-off date.
End the ‘Voter Fraud’ Fraud
For too many years, American politics has been divided between two types of people: those who want more people to vote and those who want fewer people to vote. Recently the Bush-packed Supreme Court issued a disturbing ruling in favor of the kind of law we’ve become all too familiar with. This time the offending legislation was from Indiana, which has mandated that voters present an official ID at the polls, putting even more obstacles in the way of people who simply want to cast a ballot.
Not surprisingly, the Bush Administration’s Justice Department sided with this thinly veiled attempt to discourage election day turnout by folks believed to skew Democratic: the poor, the elderly, the young and minority voters. Arguing in support of the State of Indiana, the Administration claimed that “a state need not wait to suffer harm; it can adopt prophylactic measures to prevent it from occurring in the first place.”
Talking loosely about “voter fraud” when we really mean election fraud helps reinforce the impression that the former is widespread. It is not. Voter fraud–the impersonation of a voter by another person–is extremely rare in the United States. Proposals to institute forms of voter identification, such as Arizona’s requirement that people present proof of citizenship in order to register, do very little to curtail fraud. They can, however, do an excellent job of disenfranchising the 11 percent of citizens–more than 21 million people–who do not have a government-issued photo ID. The cost of acquiring such identification essentially constitutes an insidious poll tax. That’s why we need a Summer 2008 project to get picture IDs to poor, elderly and minority voters.
The resurgence of election fraud rooted in the racist practices of the past is a far more imminent threat. A new Congress should pass Obama’s Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act (S 453, with one Republican and nineteen Democratic sponsors). Passed in the House in June of last year as HR 1281, this legislation would not only make the dirty-trick politics of voter intimidation and misinformation illegal but, just as important, it would require election administrators to work with the community to ensure that corrected information is disseminated to voters in the affected area.
Passing this legislation would begin to redress the shameful neglect of civil rights shown by the Bush Administration. From 2001 to ’06, the voting section of the civil rights division of Bush’s Justice Department brought only two voting discrimination cases on behalf of African-American voters, one of which was initiated during the Clinton years. A prodemocracy White House must appoint officials committed to protecting the right to vote.
In the twenty-first century, the other America is behind bars, literally and figuratively: with one of every 100 Americans in prison, we are establishing a perverse parallel America–a predominantly nonwhite one–and making it permanent by stripping those consigned there of the right to vote. It’s a hopeful sign that a growing number of states are re-enfranchising ex-felons. Vermont, Maine and Puerto Rico never deny citizens the right to vote and even allow prisoners to vote from jail, while sixteen other states as well as the District of Columbia allow citizens to vote who are on probation or parole or who have been released from prison. Recognizing the right of ex-felons to vote would grant them the power to contest this status for others and help reintegrate them into society.
There are other second-class citizens in our country. Most egregiously, the mostly African-American population of the District of Columbia is denied representation in Congress. While the House voted in 2007 to allow the District a voting Representative in that chamber, the motion failed to pass the Senate by three votes.
Popularly Elect Our Presidents
The President is the only elected official whose office is intended to embody the will of the people as a whole. And yet we still maintain the Electoral College, which can override the people’s will. We may have consigned the three-fifths compromise to history, but the Electoral College means that some people’s votes count less than others’. Reform is long overdue, and the presidential election process has vast potential for transformative change right now.
The transpartisan push for a National Popular Vote for President is gaining traction. It would allow for the nationwide popular election for President to be implemented without amending the Constitution. States would pass identical laws by which they agree to award all their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all states and the District of Columbia. This interstate compact would go into effect only when it has been enacted by enough states–that is, those possessing a majority (currently 270) of the electoral votes. NPV has been endorsed by leading Republicans and Democrats, newspapers like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times and hundreds of legislators in forty states. In April 2007 Maryland became the first state to pass the legislation; since then, Illinois, New Jersey and Hawaii have followed suit. Eight states have passed NPV legislation in at least one chamber of their legislature. In June Florida Senator Bill Nelson proposed legislation to abolish the Electoral College. FairVote’s executive director, Rob Richie, who has championed NPV (see Richie, “Failing Electoral College,” October 1, 2007), believes “we’ll have it by 2012”–finally modernizing what he calls “an eighteenth-century way of structuring elections.”
This bold step into the twenty-first century would redraw and expand the horizons of the possible, immediately bringing in millions of voters routinely ignored when candidates focus on a few battleground states–sixteen in 2004–that increasingly settle modern presidential campaigns. Passage of NPV could also be the catalyst that advances many of the other proposals suggested here. For the first time in history, votes would be counted across state lines, providing further impetus for reform at the federal level.
Guarantee the Right to Vote
The right to vote is a rallying cry for a prodemocracy movement. Most Americans don’t realize that the right to vote is not enshrined in our Constitution. Nor do they understand that our voting system is a shocking patchwork of rules. As Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. has written in The Nation (“The Right to Vote,” February 6, 2006): “Our voting system’s foundation is built on the sand of states’ rights and local control. We have fifty states, 3,141 counties and 7,800 different local election jurisdictions. All separate and unequal.”
In the long term, a constitutional amendment guaranteeing every citizen the right to vote would finally place our democracy on a sturdy foundation. With the passage of such an amendment, citizens could use the courts to demand equal protection of that right–it would be an invaluable tool for establishing national standards for voting systems, fighting disenfranchisement and ultimately ensuring that every vote counts and is counted correctly. The organizing campaign around a constitutional amendment could also provide a valuable long-term strategy for achieving Just Democracy.
Say Farewell to Katherine Harris
Even as our right to vote has slowly been eroded, it has become increasingly evident that our system of election administration is riddled with flaws. That any state’s top election official could also be the state chair for a presidential campaign–as was infamously the case in Florida in 2000 with Katherine Harris and in Ohio in 2004 with Kenneth Blackwell–is a gross conflict of interest that should be illegal. Election officials should be barred from participating in campaigns, and we need to establish strict conflict-of-interest laws. It’s exciting that some recently elected secretaries of state are among the democracy movement’s savviest allies. For example, Minnesota’s Mark Ritchie, who ran the nonpartisan voter registration and mobilization group National Voice in 2003, won in 2006 on an inventive platform designed to repair–not exploit–the vulnerabilities of our electoral system.
Adopt Election Day Registration
Many voters are in effect stripped of their right to vote by our voter registration system. They discover only when they arrive at the polls that they’re not on the rolls, or they’re forced by bureaucratic bungling to cast a provisional ballot that isn’t guaranteed to be counted. And yet local governments have little difficulty sending out notices for jury duty. Why don’t we have the same capacity to register citizens to vote?
Under any opt-in system, even with the most comprehensive outreach plans, there will be citizens who neglect to register, to say nothing of botched registrations. Minnesota’s Ritchie has a good idea: make registration at departments of motor vehicles an opt-out process rather than opt-in. That is, you must check a box if you do not want to be registered to vote; if you don’t check the box, you’ll automatically be registered. Most states didn’t even require voters to register before the 1870s; they instituted registration as new waves of immigrants arrived on our shores and former slaves joined the electorate. Many of the world’s democracies practice universal registration, which assumes that it is the duty of the state to promote the involvement of its citizens, who are therefore automatically registered when they reach voting age. This idea isn’t entirely foreign to the United States–while it’s alone among the states, North Dakota has the distinction of not even requiring registration to vote. There’s no reason this shouldn’t be true in the other forty-nine states.
Steven Hill, director of the Political Reform Program with the centrist New America Foundation, projects that universal registration could give 50 million Americans the chance to vote. “Voting is a right, not a privilege,” the Brennan Center’s Michael Waldman observes. “We should recognize that individuals ought not to be charged with figuring out how to register and stay registered. And we should commit to the idea that in a democracy, the government has a duty, moral and legal, to make it possible for every eligible citizen to be able to vote.” Waldman argues that universal registration could be the basis for a “grand bargain” between progressives and conservatives, simultaneously addressing the former’s demand for access and the latter’s desire for security (by making the government responsible for a national voter list). And while we’re at it, let’s lower the age for registering to vote to 16. We could even preregister young voters to ensure that they have the chance to make their voices heard. If we can register them for Selective Service, we can certainly register them to elect those who represent them in office. And how about retrieving Jesse Jackson’s idea of every public high school student graduating with “a diploma in one hand and a voter card in the other”? It could start this fall, with the public school systems and their elected leaders, principals and union officials taking the lead on it this summer.
Short of abolishing registration entirely, allowing citizens to register up until–and even on–election day is one of the few measures guaranteed to boost turnout. Just over half the states cut off registration at least twenty-five days before an election, barring otherwise eligible voters from participating just when competition between candidates (and media coverage) intensifies.
Election Day Registration clearly demonstrates that many people who hope to vote on election day wind up being turned away at the polls. For more than twenty-five years, states with EDR have consistently boasted higher turnout than states without it. In 2004 average turnout was 12 percent higher in states with EDR than in those without it; in 2006 the seven states with EDR averaged a 10 percent greater turnout. Senators Russ Feingold and Amy Klobuchar, with Representative Keith Ellison, have introduced legislation to allow EDR for all elections to federal office. Should the bill pass, the lack of EDR at the local and state level will be that much harder to justify.
And finally, why should election day be on Tuesday? That day was originally chosen because it was convenient; it gave a nation of farmers time to get to the polls without interfering with the three days of worship. We’re no longer a nation of farmers, and having to go to the polls in the middle of a workweek is far from convenient. One possible solution would be to finally declare election day a national holiday. Such a “deliberation day,” as one proposal has dubbed it, would not only ease crowds at the polls but also provide a powerful reaffirmation of the importance of voting and our commitment to democracy. Instead of making voting one more item on a list of errands, we could make it the most important act of a day devoted to democracy.
End the Party Duopoly
For the first time in nearly a century more than a quarter of American voters are not registered as either Republicans or Democrats. During the 2004 presidential campaign, one poll suggested 57 percent of voters thought candidates besides Bush and Kerry should be included in the debates. In the latest biannual survey from Harvard’s Institute of Politics of 18- to 24-year-olds, 37 percent of young voters agreed that there was a need for a third party.
If majority rule is to be more than a hollow slogan and third parties more than “spoilers,” we need to experiment with more accurate ways to represent the diversity of backgrounds, perspectives and opinions of the American people. Proportional representation–in which 10 percent of the vote wins 10 percent of the seats–is one way. But the United States is an outlier when it comes to PR. We’re one of the few “advanced” democracies that don’t use it in national elections. But PR isn’t as alien as it might seem: Cambridge, Massachusetts, has used a proportional voting scheme to elect its City Council for seven decades. Illinois used a similar system to elect its lower house from 1870 to 1980, and it enjoys broad bipartisan support. As opposed to our winner-take-all system, in which a mere plurality of voters can carry an election, full representation allows for the expression of a broader range of interests.
The Democrats’ use of proportional representation in their nominating process gives a sense of what it means: every vote counts, no matter how lopsided the result might be in any district or state.
Although not as radical a departure as proportional representation, instant runoff voting (IRV)–in which low-scoring candidates are eliminated and their supporters’ second-choice votes are added to those that remain, until one candidate wins a majority–is another way to challenge the duopoly while protecting majority rule for all.
Backed by groups like FairVote and the New America Foundation, IRV also has the support of McCain and Obama, along with Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean and third-party candidates like Libertarian Bob Barr, the Green Party’s Cynthia McKinney and Ralph Nader.
And instant runoff voting has begun to catch on with the public. IRV has won thirteen of the last fourteen times it appeared on a ballot, winning landslides in cities like Oakland (69 percent), Minneapo-lis (65 percent), Sarasota (78 percent) and Santa Fe(65 percent). San Francisco just held its fourth IRV election, and exit polls have found it popular there with every measurable demographic. This fall, Pierce County, Washington, with a population of nearly 800,000, will use it for the first time for a hotly contested county executive election. And new cities voting to adopt it will include Glendale, California; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Memphis, Tennessee. A bill instituting IRV for Congressional elections in Vermont was vetoed by that state’s Republican governor but will be back next year.
Finally, fusion voting has the weight of long experience behind it. Before the twentieth century, it was a frequent tool of emerging parties, until major parties started banning it. Fusion allows two or more parties to nominate the same candidate on separate ballot lines. That simple change permits people to vote their values without “wasting” their vote or supporting “spoilers.” The positive experience of New York’s Working Families Party in the past decade shows you can build a viable minority party this way. And fusion has also helped progressives focus on the challenge of building majorities in a winner-take-all system. These options would dramatically open our electoral system to more choices, ensuring the representation of diverse views instead of seeing them co-opted or suppressed by the “least worst” options presented by the duopoly.
Money, Money, Money
Our representatives should represent all of us, not just big-money donors who can afford to buy access. Restoring accountability and responsiveness depends on cleansing politics of the influence of money. Full public financing for campaigns would free the best of our elected officials from that influence and increase the power of people over our representatives–or even let them become representatives; full public financing is almost the only way for citizens of average means to run for office.
The good news is that signs of discontent are clear. Americans of diverse backgrounds are fed up with politicians who don’t listen to them, who don’t care about them and who don’t respond to their concerns. Clear majorities favor reforms such as public financing of campaigns. A survey conducted on behalf of prodemocracy groups like Public Campaign and Common Cause found that a full 74 percent of voters favor a voluntary system of public funding for elections (with only 16 percent opposed). This support stretches across party lines, netting 80 percent of Democrats, 78 percent of independents and 65 percent of Republicans.
The not-so-good news: public financing in the form of matching funds has been available to presidential candidates since the mid-1970s, but as the primary season drags on ever longer and the cost of television airtime has skyrocketed, the need for campaign cash has become ever more desperate, causing candidates increasingly to opt out of the system. As Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public Campaign, put it, “The system is broken and badly needs an overhaul.”
And we need to update the system: various modernizing reforms, among other provisions, are included in the Presidential Funding Act (S 436), introduced in the Senate by Russ Feingold and, ironically, Barack Obama. Because Obama is the first presidential candidate to opt out of public financing for a general election, it is incumbent on him to commit to making passage of comprehensive and updated public financing of all federal elections a top priority.
Short of introducing a system of full public financing, one modest proposal to reduce fundraising pressures would be to increase dramatically the amount a candidate receives for donations of $100 or less, by matching such donations on a 1:4 basis (this could be reinforced by eliminating matching funds for donations of more than $100). This simple formula could serve as the basis for a system of public financing of Congressional elections as well. Candidates would then have a greater incentive to cultivate small donors, restoring some degree of sanity to the fundraising process. Another way to decrease the pressure for campaign cash: guarantee free airtime to qualified candidates and make that airtime a condition for FCC renewal of lucrative TV and radio licenses.
For too long, the fundraising arms race has deterred Congress from taking meaningful steps to overhaul this dysfunctional system. Fortunately the convergence of democratic ideals and pragmatic considerations wrought by fundraising fatigue–key senators lament that they spend almost a third of their time raising money–has led to two excellent bills with impressive sponsorship. Senators Dick Durbin and Arlen Specter’s Fair Elections Now Act has garnered eight co-sponsors, including Obama (the first co-sponsor). In the House the Clean Money, Clean Elections Act of 2007 has fifty-five co-sponsors. Under both these bills, candidates who show a qualifying level of support and opt out of further private contributions would be supported by public funding.
Until now, however, the most promising and smartest experiments with voluntary systems of public financing have come from the states. In Arizona, where qualified candidates have been able to take advantage of public financing since the 2000 election, 42 percent of the State Legislature has been elected using public funds. In Maine, which inaugurated its public funding system four years earlier, 84 percent of the State Legislature has been elected using matching funds. Connecticut, New Jersey and New Mexico all have Clean Elections statutes.
Maine’s experience with Clean Elections also suggests that these reforms successfully promote diversity. Eighteen percent more women have run for office since the reforms were enacted than in the decade before. In Arizona’s 2006 primary, 69 percent of female candidates (as opposed to 52 percent of male candidates) took advantage of the state’s public funding, and the percentage of minority candidates went from 6 percent in 2000 to 14 percent in 2006.
Meanwhile, analysis suggests that Latino communities and people with low incomes are much more actively involved as donors in Arizona’s Clean Elections than they are in the privately financed campaigns in the state. The success of bringing more diverse, less affluent candidates into politics has led reform groups to downplay the fight against corruption and focus more on why change is necessary to give ordinary people more representation, voice and, yes, power in the electoral process.
The Way Forward
The Congressional Progressive Caucus could take the first step, calling on Democratic leaders to support the agenda detailed here. It could then be introduced in Congress as a package of bills, with the CPC demanding a roll-call vote on each. There should be a balance between paving the way for far-reaching change and reforms we can win now. Already Senator Bill Nelson’s One Person, One Vote Initiative shows how a compelling package of reforms can enhance the case for each of its elements.
Meanwhile, campaigns should push this agenda in the states and at the grassroots, enlisting a broad coalition–beginning with voting, civil rights and media groups, along with the new secretaries of state–to organize in every district. (AlterNet is publishing a book, Count My Vote, that will be an invaluable resource for grassroots activists. It compiles the voting regulations of every state and offers sections exploring the unique situations of everyone from students to seniors to new voters.) Those politicians who vote against democracy should be targeted and made examples of, with the coalition fielding and supporting challengers to go after their seats. The muscle is there; it just has to be flexed.
Before the Voting Rights Act was passed, President Lyndon Johnson is said to have urged Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to go out there and make it possible for him to do the right thing. Our elected representatives need pressure from a broad-based movement–reaching from the grassroots to the halls of Congress–if they’re going to champion Just Democracy. Enlisting the netroots and the blogosphere, along with the progressive media, will be vital in getting the word out. The new democracy will come only when the defenders of the citadels of privilege find they are threatened on the terms of the old system. We’re calling for radical democracy, birthed by bare-knuckled politics.
Admittedly, defining an agenda and building a movement is just a beginning; the fight will be long and hard. Few politicians have been willing to take the lead in calling for the measures proposed here. Trapped in the rapidly escalating race of campaign finance, who will set aside the weapons of dollars and incumbency to rebuild a truly representative democracy? If they won’t do it, we will.
A Just Democracy movement will require idealism and diligent organizing; it will demand a broad coalition committed to making these reforms a high priority. Working together, we can repair the broken system we’ve been handed and confront the crisis of disenfranchisement that has overtaken our democracy. We want 100 percent registration. We want increased participation. We want full representation with majority rule. We want the right to vote. We want to vote without fear–that our votes will not count, or be counted by hacked machines.
It is long past time to place democracy at the center of our politics, where it belongs. We don’t exist just to curse the political darkness but to craft solutions to make America a more perfect union.